Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, November 26, 2022

"The Lusitania Waits" by Alfred Noyes

A short story written during the war by Alfred Noyes, most famous for the adventure poem "The Highwayman," who was working under John Buchan at the British propaganda ministry.  It is said to be a tale of vengeance and the supernatural.  Read on, if you dare!

The Lusitania Waits

On a stormy winter's night three skippers—averaging three score years and five—were discussing the news, around a roaring fire, in the parlor of the White Horse Inn. Five years ago they had retired, each on a snug nest-egg. They were looking forward to a mellow old age in port and a long succession of evenings at the White Horse, where they gathered to debate the politics of their district. The war had given them new topics; but Captain John Kendrick—who had become a parish councilor and sometimes carried bulky blue documents in his breast-pocket, displaying the edges with careful pride—still kept the local pot a-boiling. He was mainly successful on Saturday nights, when the Gazette, their weekly newspaper, appeared. It was edited by a Scot named Macpherson, who had learned his job on the Arbroath Free Press.

"Macpherson will never be on the council now," said Captain Kendrick. "There's a rumor that he's a freethinker. He says that Christianity has been proved a failure by the war."

"Well, these chaps of ours now," said Captain Davidson, "out at sea on a night like this, trying to kill Germans. It's necessary, I know, because the Germans would kill our own folks if we gave 'em a chance. But don't it prove that there's no use for Christianity? In modern civilization, I mean."

"Macpherson's no freethinker," said Captain Morgan, who was a friend of the editor, and inclined on the strength of it to occupy the intellectual chair at the White Horse. "Macpherson says we'll have to try again after the war, or it will be blood and iron all round."

"He's upset by the war," said Captain Davidson, "and he's taken to writing poytry in his paper. He'd best be careful or he'll lose his circulation."

"Ah!" said Kendrick. "That's what 'ull finish him for the council. What we want is practical men. Poytry would destroy any man's reputation. There was a great deal of talk caused by his last one, about our trawler chaps. 'Fishers of Men,' he called it; and I'm not sure that it wouldn't be considered blasphemious by a good many."

Captain Morgan shook his head. "Every Sunday evening," he said, "my missus asks me to read her Macpherson's pome in the Gazette, and I've come to enjoy them myself. Now, what does he say in 'Fishers of Men'?"

"Read it," said Kendrick, picking the Gazette from the litter of newspapers on the table and handing it to Morgan. "If you know how to read poytry, read it aloud, the way you do to your missus. I can't make head or tail of poytry myself; but it looks blasphemious to me."

Captain Morgan wiped his big spectacles while the other two settled themselves to listen critically. Then he began in his best Sunday voice, very slowly, but by no means unimpressively:

Long, long ago He said,

He who could wake the dead,

And walk upon the sea—

"Come, follow Me.

"Leave your brown nets and bring

Only your hearts to sing,

Only your souls to pray,

Rise, come away.

"Shake out your spirit-sails,

And brave those wilder gales,

And I will make you then

Fishers of men."

Was this, then, what He meant?

Was this His high intent,

After two thousand years

Of blood and tears?

God help us, if we fight

For right and not for might.

God help us if we seek

To shield the weak.

Then, though His heaven be far

From this blind welter of war,

He'll bless us on the sea

From Calvary.

"It seems to rhyme all right," said Kendrick. "It's not so bad for Macpherson."

"Have you heard," said Davidson reflectively, "they're wanting more trawler skippers down at the base?"

"I've been fifty years, man and boy, at sea," said Captain Morgan; "that's half a century, mind you."

"Ah, it's hard on the women, too," said Davidson. "We're never sure what boats have been lost till we see the women crying. I don't know how they get the men to do it."

Captain John Kendrick stabbed viciously with his forefinger at a picture in an illustrated paper.

"Here's a wicked thing now," he said. "Here's a medal they've struck in Germany to commemorate the sinking of the Lusitania. Here's a photograph of both sides of it. On one side, you see the great ship sinking, loaded up with munitions which wasn't there; but not a sign of the women and children that was there. On the other side you see the passengers taking their tickets from Death in the New York booking office. Now that's a fearful thing. I can understand 'em making a mistake, but I can't understand 'em wanting to strike a medal for it."

"Not much mistake about the Lusitania," growled Captain Davidson.

"No, indeed. That was only my argyment," replied the councilor. "They're a treacherous lot. It was a fearful thing to do a deed like that. My son's in the Cunard; and, man alive, he tells me it's like sinking a big London hotel. There was ladies in evening dress, and dancing in the big saloons every night; and lifts to take you from one deck to another; and shops with plate-glass windows, and smoking-rooms; and glass around the promenade deck, so that the little children could play there in bad weather, and the ladies lay in their deck-chairs and sun themselves like peaches. There wasn't a soldier aboard, and some of the women was bringing their babies to see their Canadian daddies in England for the first time. Why, man, it was like sinking a nursing home!"

"Do you suppose, Captain Kendrick, that they ever caught that submarine?" asked Captain Morgan. They were old friends, but always punctilious about their titles.

"Ah, now I'll tell you something! Hear that?"

The three old men listened. Through the gusts of wind that battered the White Horse they heard the sound of heavy floundering footsteps passing down the cobbled street, and a hoarse broken voice bellowing, with uncanny abandonment, a fragment of a hymn:

"While shepherds watched their flocks by night, All seated on the ground."

"That's poor old Jim Hunt," said Captain Morgan. He rose and drew the thick red curtains from the window to peer out into the blackness.

"Turn the lamp down," said the councilor, "or we'll be arrested under the anti-aircraft laws."

Davidson turned the lamp down and they all looked out of the window. They saw the figure of a man, black against the glimmering water of the harbor below. He walked with a curious floundering gait that might be mistaken for the effects of drink. He waved his arms over his head like a windmill and bellowed his hymn as he went, though the words were now indistinguishable from the tumult of wind and sea.

Captain Morgan drew the curtains, and the three sat down again by the fire without turning up the lamp. The firelight played on the furrowed and bronzed old faces and revealed them as worthy models for a Rembrandt.

"Poor old Jimmy Hunt!" said Captain Kendrick. "You never know how craziness is going to take people. Jimmy was a terror for women and the drink, till he was taken off the Albatross by that German submarine. They cracked him over the head with an iron bolt, down at the bottom of the sea, because he wouldn't answer no questions. He hasn't touched a drop since. All he does is to walk about in bad weather, singing hymns against the wind. But there's more in it than that."

Captain Kendrick lighted his pipe thoughtfully. The wind rattled the windows. Outside, the sign-board creaked and whined as it swung.

"A man like Jim Hunt doesn't go crazy," he continued, "through spending a night in a 'U' boat, and then floating about for a bit. Jimmy won't talk about it now; won't do nothing but sing that blasted hymn; but this is what he said to me when they first brought him ashore. They said he was raving mad, on account of his experiences. But that don't explain what his experiences were. Follow me? And this is what he said. 'I been down,' he says, half singing like. 'I been down, down, in the bloody submarine that sank the Lusitania. And what's more,' he says,'I seen 'em!'

"'Seen what?' I says, humoring him like, and I gave him a cigarette. We were sitting close together in his mother's kitchen. 'Ah!' he says, calming down a little, and speaking right into my ear, as if it was a secret. 'It was Christmas Eve the time they took me down. We could hear 'em singing carols on shore; and the captain didn't like it, so he blew a whistle, and the Germans jumped to close the hatchways; and we went down, down, down, to the bottom of the sea.

"'I saw the whole ship,' he says; and he described it to me, so that I knew he wasn't raving then. 'There was only just room to stand upright,' he says, 'and overhead there was a track for the torpedo carrier. The crew slept in hammocks and berths along the wall; but there wasn't room for more than half to sleep at the same time. They took me through a little foot-hole, with an air-tight door, into a cabin.

"'The captain seemed kind of excited and showed me the medal he got for sinking the Lusitania; and I asked him if the Kaiser gave it to him for a Christmas present. That was when he and another officer seemed to go mad; and the officer gave me a blow on the head with a piece of iron.

"'They say I'm crazy,' he says, 'but it was the men on the "U" boat that went crazy. I was lying where I fell, with the blood running down my face, but I was watching them,' he says, 'and I saw them start and listen like trapped weasels. At first I thought the trawlers had got 'em in a net. Then I heard a funny little tapping sound all round the hull of the submarine, like little soft hands it was, tapping, tapping, tapping.

"'The captain went white as a ghost, and shouted out something in German, like as if he was calling "Who's there?" and the mate clapped his hand over his mouth, and they both stood staring at one another.

"'Then there was a sound like a thin little voice, outside the ship, mark you, and sixty fathom deep, saying, "Christmas Eve, the Waits, sir!" The captain tore the mate's hand away and shouted again, like he was asking "Who's there!" and wild to get an answer, too. Then, very thin and clear, the little voice came a second time, "The Waits, sir. The Lusitania, ladies!" And at that the captain struck the mate in the face with his clenched fist. He had the medal in it still between his fingers, using it like a knuckle-duster. Then he called to the men like a madman, all in German, but I knew he was telling 'em to rise to the surface, by the way they were trying to obey him.

"'The submarine never budged for all that they could do; and while they were running up and down and squealing out to one another, there was a kind of low sweet sound all round the hull, like a thousand voices all singing together in the sea:

"Fear not, said he, for mighty dread

Had seized their troubled mind.

Glad tidings of great joy I bring

To you and all mankind."

"Then the tapping began again, but it was much louder now; and it seemed as if hundreds of drowned hands were feeling the hull and loosening bolts and pulling at hatchways; and—all at once—a trickle of water came splashing down into the cabin. The captain dropped his medal. It rolled up to my hand and I saw there was blood on it. He screamed at the men, and they pulled out their life-saving apparatus, a kind of air-tank which they strapped on their backs, with tubes to rubber masks for clapping over their mouths and noses. I watched 'em doing it, and managed to do the same. They were too busy to take any notice of me. Then they pulled a lever and tumbled out through a hole, and I followed 'em blindly. Something grabbed me when I got outside and held me for a minute. Then I saw 'em, Captain Kendrick, I saw 'em, hundreds and hundreds of 'em, in a shiny light, and sixty fathom down under the dark sea—they were all waiting there, men and women and poor little babies with hair like sunshine....

"'And the men were smiling at the Germans in a friendly way, and unstrapping the air-tanks from their backs, and saying, "Won't you come and join us? It's Christmas Eve, you know."

"'Then whatever it was that held me let me go, and I shot up and knew nothing till I found myself in Jack Simmonds's drifter, and they told me I was crazy.'"

Captain Kendrick filled his pipe. A great gust struck the old inn again and again till all the timbers trembled. The floundering step passed once more, and the hoarse voice bellowed away in the darkness against the bellowing sea:

A Savior which is Christ the Lord,

And this shall be the sign.

Captain Davidson was the first to speak.

"Poor old Jim Hunt!" he said. "There's not much Christ about any of this war."

"I'm not so sure of that neither," said Captain Morgan. "Macpherson said a striking thing to me the other day. 'Seems to me,' he says, 'there's a good many nowadays that are touching the iron nails.'"

He rose and drew the curtains from the window again.

"The sea's rattling hollow," he said; "there'll be rain before morning."

"Well, I must be going," said Captain Davidson. "I want to see the naval secretary down at the base."

"About what?"

"Why, I'm not too old for a trawler, am I?"

"My missus won't like it, but I'll come with you," said Captain Morgan; and they went through the door together, lowering their heads against the wind.

"Hold on! I'm coming, too," said Captain Kendrick; and he followed them, buttoning up his coat.

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